Been trying to get to more of your questions. So here’s another one.
It’s from ScottyB:
What's your take/reason for "retrospective" sitcom episodes? On one hand, I can see where they're useful, especially if it's a program that took a few seasons to catch on without somehow being canceled and it's a handy way to get the slower folk up even more up to speed, but they always made me think they were just filler thrown together that week because nobody had any good ideas that week, there was an actor/script mutiny, someone in the cast died and shut down the set, the studio caught on fire, or that stars just wanted their own individual talent shows. Even those live 100th-episode retros of Cheers (hosted by John McLaughlin -- gawd, WTF was someone thinking????), Frasier, Seinfeld, Everybody Loves Raymond just always seemed really hollow and self-serving.
One time my partner and I pitched a pilot to a major network. The VP of Development (who later went on to even greater heights) listened patiently as we spelled out the premise, characters, and sample jokes. When we finished he paused, took a moment to consider, then asked, “What is the first episode of the seventh season?” My first thought (and current thought) was, “What kind of fucking idiotic question is that?”
So my answer was: “The clip show, showing highlights of all the classic episodes from the first six years.” Seriously, how do you respond to something so stupid? (No, we didn't sell the pilot.)
Yes, the “retrospective” or (as we call it) the “clip show” is a staple of hit shows.
Everyone just naturally assumes it’s a breeze to make the clip show. Just slap a few scenes together and you’re done. It’s almost like a free week. But here’s what you don’t know: assembling clip shows are way harder and takes far longer than any regular episode. They’re a holy bitch.
Think about it – first you have to decide on the format. Will there be wrap-arounds by the cast in character? “Remember the time we…?” If so, you have to write and film them. Will narration provide the transitions? Or graphics? Will the star just reminisce? On CHEERS we decided on a panel format. Personally, I thought that was a good idea. It was at least a fresh take on clip shows.
Okay, so now you've decided on your overall format. How are your going to format the clips themselves? By character? By season? By setting? And are you going to show entire scenes or quick snippets? Will there be montages? Will they be over music? What music?
You determine all of that. And now comes the fun part: combing through fifty hours of shows. Someone has to do it. I was involved in the MASH retrospective. After a full day we would drive across town to the lab and screen episodes until midnight. This went on every night for about a month.
You whittle the voluminous footage down to what you think you need. Then it’s assembled and you realize -- shit! It’s still six hours. You only have forty minutes (assuming the network gives you an hour). Now comes the agonizing process of pruning it down. Expect hours and hours of debate. This scene is really funny but takes four minutes. Do we really want to do that? If we cut this scene than character X gets maybe ten seconds of air time for the whole show. You get the idea.
So now you’ve got it down to time. Congratulations. What order do the clips go in? You can count on at least five passes.
Get the idea? And remember, all of this work is in addition to writing and producing the show.
The good news is that writers, actors, and directors get residuals if their clips are used. I cleaned up on the MASH and CHEERS clip shows. In fact, whenever a rewrite night wasn't going well I lobbied for another clip show.
Tomorrow: How one series retrospective had a traumatic effect on me.